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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 09:26 GMT 10:26 UK
Ethiopians celebrate obelisk return
By Amber Henshaw
BBC News Website, Axum, Ethiopia

The silhouette of the huge Antonov plane could be seen across the horizon just as the sun was starting to rise over the streets of Axum in northern Ethiopia.

Cheering Ethiopians
Ethiopians greeted the dawn arrival with cheers
There was still a chill in the air as the crowd cheered.

The first part of an ancient obelisk was being flown in from Rome almost 70 years after it was stolen.

There was a crowd of selected guests and staff waiting for it at the airport.

These included old men wearing blue and crimson capes who had fought against the Italians when they had tried to colonise Ethiopia in the 1930s.

The guests had been brought to the airport at about 0600 local time (0300GMT) in a specially organised convoy of white four-wheel-drive vehicles.

There was huge applause as the plane landed about 30 minutes later.

The excitement was obvious as many of the dignitaries hugged each other and clapped.

Shortly after it came to a standstill, the VIPs rushed to the plane as it opened up to reveal the middle part of the obelisk.

The group of onlookers grew as a delegation of priests dressed in white carrying brightly coloured umbrellas walked across the tarmac to where the Antonov had landed.

They were accompanied by a group of men, women and children singing traditional Ethiopian songs and dancing.

In the end, a crowd of some 200 stood on the runway watching the two cranes get into position ready to transfer the monument from the Antonov on to a lorry where it will remain for the next few days.

History

Back in the town celebrations got under way.

Crowds of people lined the streets to watch traditional dancing.

The obelisk shows us our artistic ability and our father's artistic ability
Kiros Haile Selassie
Ethiopians have been waiting for this moment for almost seven decades.

The State Minister for Information, Netsannet Asfaw, said: "I feel it's almost not real, I'm so happy. It's been so long."

"My parents have hoped for it. Every Ethiopian has hoped for it. Now we are lucky enough to receive it. It's something that is our identity, it is who we are. We are very grateful to the Italian people and the Italian government to decide to give it back to who it belongs."

Fitaurary Amede Tema, who was a senator in Haile Selassie's government said: "It is a new chapter in history. I have been waiting for this all of my life."

The obelisk was stolen from the small town of Axum by Italian invaders under their leader Benito Mussolini in 1937. At the time Italy was trying to expand its empire by trying to colonise Ethiopia.

Problems

Italy had agreed to give the 24-metre granite monument back in the past but up until now there have just been a string of broken promises.

The obelisk was due to arrive back in Axum last Wednesday but it was delayed at the last moment due to technical problems. Many in the town were deeply disappointed and believed it might never return.

Axum obelisk in Rome
The Axum obelisk was in Rome for 68 years
There are more than 100 stelae or obelisks in and around the small northern town. It is believed they mark the tombs of kings dating back to the ancient pre-Christian Axumite era.

Kiros Haile Selassie, who is on the national committee for the obelisk's return, said: "I am very happy today because this is our heritage, it is our monument, it is our grandfather's heritage.

"The obelisk shows us our artistic ability and our father's artistic ability. It shows the next generation that they should work hard like their grandfathers and grandmothers."

The obelisk had to be returned from Rome in three separate parts. The first one arrived on Tuesday morning and the next two are due within seven days.

Controversy

The operation to dismantle the obelisk and return it to Ethiopia has been long and complicated. Simone Lattanzi, the technical director of the company Lattanzi which is responsible for the project, said it was the most difficult job he had ever done.

When all three pieces have arrived they will be taken to the field where the obelisk was stolen from and stored there until the re-erection which is planned for September after the rains.

There is some controversy about whether the stelae should be re-erected in its original site.

The UN's cultural organisation, Unesco, has been carrying out a scientific and archaeological study on the area. The results will be handed to the Ethiopian government which will ultimately make the decision.

The celebrations are likely to last for the whole of this week culminating in a special event when all three pieces have been returned.






SEE ALSO:
Deadlock over Axum obelisk
14 Sep 04 |  Africa


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